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Digital potential squandered as African internet governance mired in chaos

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A recent report suggested that Africa’s digital economy and tech ecosystem are set to grow exponentially in the coming years. Millions of jobs are being created as digital penetration accelerates faster in Africa than in any other region, and the African digital economy could be worth more than $700 billion by 2050 if it continues to grow at its current rapid pace. This potential, however, is being hampered by deep problems with internet governance in the region. In particular, the Mauritius-based Regional Internet Registry (RIR) AFRINIC, the body assigned the task of allocating and registering IP addresses in Africa and the Indian Ocean region, has become so embroiled in scandal and apparent corporate malfeasance that the Supreme Court of Mauritius was recently forced to intervene, suspending AFRINIC CEO Eddy Kayihura and holding that the current composition of AFRINIC’s board is legally invalid.

History of controversy

The current imbroglio is the latest in a long line of controversies which have raised doubts over AFRINIC’s abilities to manage Africa’s allotment of valuable IP addresses. The organisation’s former CEO, Adiel Akplogan, became embroiled in a racially-charged feud after alleging that there was a conspiracy by white people to take over AFRINIC’s board. The situation was only made more complicated by the fact that the board candidates attacked by Akplogan were widely seen as attempting to bring greater transparency and accountability to the organisation, something which was sorely needed given the limited remaining blocks of IPv4 addresses and their soaring value.

Further controversy erupted when AFRINIC proposed curbing access to IP addresses in African countries whose governments had temporarily shut down the Internet, a policy which AFRINIC staff acknowledged at the time was “draconian” and African policymakers warned could cripple vital public services. A sexual harassment scandal and associated coverup followed, leading some AFRINIC members to call for the dissolution of the entire organisation, betraying a level of internal dissent and lack of confidence that is highly troubling given the Regional Internet Registries’ key role in the internet’s global infrastructure.

Boardroom battles bring AFRINIC back in the spotlight

Eddy Kayihura was appointed as CEO in November 2019 with the mission of cleaning up the troubled organisation and returning it to the purely technical role it was intended to fill, but instead has overseen additional turmoil which is once again posing an existential threat to AFRINIC, and by extension, to the stability of Africa’s internet. Because of AFRINIC’s particular governance structure—its board members are also its sole stakeholders, giving them significant control over the organisation—having a properly composed board is essential to the functioning of Africa’s internet.

Over the past few months, however, AFRINIC’s board has become paralysed by members jockeying for power. First, previous board president Subramanian Moonesamy tried to extend members’ terms in what another member described as a “coup” violating the legal advice which AFRINIC had received. The organisation fell into true chaos, however, at the Annual General Members’ Meeting (AGMM), held in early June on the last day of the Africa Internet Summit. Members refused to approve either AFRINIC’s annual financial statement or its choice of external auditor, and raised concerns over a wide range of issues, including unexplained discrepancies in AFRINIC’s financial statements and the presence of Mauritian police outside the meeting.

As an interim injunction prevented AFRINIC from holding elections for board seats during the annual meeting, several prior members’ terms expired, leaving half the seats on AFRINIC’s board empty. Despite these empty seats, the remaining board members have continued to meet and take decisions, including appointing a new chair and vice-chair of the board. AFRINIC members have voiced their growing concern at the board taking important decisions without the necessary quorum, and on June 30th, the Supreme Court of Mauritius validated their concerns, finding that AFRINIC does not currently “have a Board of Directors as per the law” and prohibiting Kayihura from acting as the organisation’s director until elections are held to appoint a properly constituted board.

Clean slate needed to restore AFRINIC’s normal functioning

It’s unclear when such elections might be held, and Kayihura has waded into further controversy by deciding to screen members’ messages on the AFRINIC community’s open mailing list shortly after allegations of extreme hate speech—specifically, social media posts appearing to advocate hatred and violence against Israelis— cropped up against one member and candidate for AFRINIC’s board, Amin Dayekh. What’s clear is that major changes need to occur for AFRINIC to become the stable, impartial RIR that Africa needs.

This is all the more important given the various issues thwarting Africa’s digital development, issues which AFRINIC could help solve if it was not mired in internal infighting and legal disputes. Kayihura himself identified many of these earlier this year, before the latest controversies at AFRINIC—the shift to IPv6, which is occurring too slowly given the pace at which the world’s remaining IPv4 addresses are being depleted, and cybercrime, which has been identified as one of the top risk factors stymying Africa’s digital economy. AFRINIC could play a key role in identifying and implementing solutions for these roadblocks,

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